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November 19, 2015

Educator Spotlight: Mr. Jose Lara, Social Justice Educator & Dean, Santee Ed Complex

During the first few years at Santee Education Complex, where he began his teaching career 10 years ago, Mr. Jose Lara frequently asked himself, “What have I done?”

Plagued by gang violence, student riots and teacher turnover, Santee was a far cry from the learning center Mr. Lara had hoped for.

Undeterred, Mr. Lara decided to fight back, arming students with lessons from their past to create common ground and quell tensions on campus.

“Ethnic studies plays a vital role in bringing peace and unity to a campus because students start to empathize with each other instead of fighting amongst themselves. They begin to see that they have a common struggle,” said Mr. Lara who has served as Dean at Santee for the past three years.

His belief in the power of ethnic studies led him to successfully campaign to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement at the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, where Mr. Lara serves as the Vice President of the board. 

But he didn’t stop there. He formed the “Ethnic Studies Now Coalition” and led the campaign to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the Los Angeles Unified School District. After a successful vote, Lara approached the Partnership’s CEO, Joan Sullivan, to push Partnership schools to the forefront. “Joan is very progressive, she immediately reached out to the high school principals and today all Partnership high schools offer ethnic studies courses with Roosevelt really leading the way. I think we are in a good position to led the district in this area,” he said.

His unrelenting passion for ethnic studies is the reason Mr. Lara was recently named the “2015 Social Justice Activist of the Year” at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in July. The award recognizes one exceptional NEA member who demonstrates the ability to lead, organize and engage educators, parents, and the community to advocate on social justice issues that impact the lives of students, fellow educators and the communities they serve.

“I went through a number of emotions when I got the news. I went from being amazed to being in disbelief to being humbled. The nominees I was up against go on speaking tours, they’ve written books, so that they chose an average educator like me was incredibly humbling,” he remarked.   

Santee has changed quite a bit since those first turbulent years and today, along with sustained academic achievement, Santee is the only high school in South LA with more students wanting to attend than the school can accommodate.

“Santee is now a school that kids want to go to - that’s a total turnaround. My hope is that through ethnic studies, students can find a sense of mission for improving their community, not just getting out of the hood,” Mr. Lara explained. “That’s real transformative education.”

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